When Chris Roberts unveiled Star Citizen in October, he wasn't working alone. After an absence from the games industry of more than a decade, Roberts chose to create his first game with CryEngine 3, and it just so happened that he had an acolyte or five in Crytek's offices. In an industry where first impressions and day one performance can be the difference between success or failure, Roberts was able to call on some of the safest hands in the business to help finesse Star Citizen's trailer and prototype.
“I have a bit of an advantage in that there are a lot of people who played Wing Commander in the Nineties, and that was one of the reasons they got into making games in the first place," he says, speaking exclusively to GamesIndustry International. "I got the feeling that there were quite a few Wing Commander fans at Crytek, and they were all just excited to help out.”
"Big-box publishers won't bring you success in the PC space. Riot Games was nobody before it did League of Legends, and Wargaming was a small, niche publisher"
When Roberts first made contact with Crytek, however, the PC focus and grand ambition of Star Citizen was at the end of the road-map, not the start. The problem wasn't the tech - with a few tweaks, CryEngine 3 would certainly be capable of realising the game - but Roberts' standing in the industry after nearly a decade off the radar. Star Citizen was an ambitious PC exclusive in a largely forgotten genre: a hard sell by any measure. Roberts had resigned himself to the necessity of making a console game first, possibly under the Wing Commander brand, with funding from a publisher. With his foot firmly in the door again, he would be able to develop the technology necessary for Star Citizen concurrently. It would be the second project of his rebirth, the culmination of a process that would take at least five years.
"I didn't think the project would suit a traditional publisher route, because big-box publishers won't bring you success in the PC space," he says. "The big successes in PC are like World of Tanks and League of Legends: Riot was nobody before it did League of Legends, and Wargaming was a small, niche publisher.
“But as time went on, the old console publishing path started to feel very yesterday, and I was thinking, 'Do I really want to spend three years working on a next-gen console game that would ship just after the new consoles are out to a very small customer base.' It would get a month's worth of play and they'd be on to the next thing. So I cut out the first step.”
The catalyst was the emergence of crowd-funding as viable tool for independent developers - the single most important trend of 2012, regardless of what those end-of-year lists claim. At a stroke, Double Fine freed developers like Roberts from twisting their passion projects into a more 'commercial' form simply to loosen the publishers' purse strings. He had already secured enough private equity to create an evocative prototype; with Kickstarter, he could trade a publisher for whatever money his reputation could earn.
“I remember the conversation Chris and I had two years ago, before Kickstarter had blown up," says Crytek's Carl Jones, who has been helping Roberts with Star Citizen since he first enquired about the CryEngine. "We were talking about film finance, and trying to find a similar thing in gaming, and we came to the conclusion that pre-ordering was the closest thing to the way films are financed. We wondered if it would be possible to turn to the fans to get the game made, in the way that regional sales can sometimes fund a film's development. The growth of Kickstarter has really given is the opportunity to apply the film model to game funding.”
The key difference, of course, is that Roberts wouldn't be dealing with national film distributors, but his own fans, and fans of games in general. It was a world away from the largely corporate environment of high-end development, and the key to success was building trust with the community. Rather than focus entirely on Kickstarter, Roberts decided to place greater emphasis on a dedicated Star Citizen site, which could offer a broader range of payment options and give the community a hub around which to grow. It was the right idea: Star Citizen eclipsed Roberts' $4 million best-case scenario, having raised just over $7 million at the time of writing, with almost $5 million of that figure donated via the website.
“My disappointment around some of the other Kickstarters is that the [community] stuff isn't particularly great," he says. "Double Fine is doing a nice thing with its documentary, but with other Kickstarters you occasionally get an update - every two or three months. There's a lot of noise and action at the beginning and then it all goes quiet. But the community is what makes or breaks the game, and they're also a really great resource for testing ideas. They're a focus group, and they're game testers.”
For Roberts, this isn't a minor point: his relationship with Star Citizen's backers didn't end with the receipt of their money; that was just the start. If the experience of donating to his project can be given value beyond the eventual game, it stands to reason that the same people would be willing to back his next project, and the one after, and the one after. With enough care and good judgment, the community Roberts has built around Star Citizen could fund his games for years to come.
“Our job - and I'm building the team [Roberts Space Industries] around this, too - is to entertain our audience during the two years they'll be waiting for the game," he says. "We'll be giving them builds and portions of it much sooner than that, and they'll be getting multiple updates every single week... I want to make the journey, for everyone that backed it, as fun as the actual game. I want them to get to the point where they feel they got their money's worth before the finished game is actually released. That's a big priority for me.
"We're going to treat our backers essentially as we would a publisher, where you work towards milestones and then have a show-and-tell on the new features and the latest build. The community has financed the game, so it should get that level of respect.”
In return, Star Citizen will enjoy the sort of fluid, uncompromised development that delighted inXile Entertainment's Brian Fargo so much at this year's Unite conference. According to Roberts, the major source of waste in game development comes from slow decision-making, so without the extra layer of deliberation a publisher brings, there will be more value in every one of Star Citizen's 7 million dollars, and the proof will be right there on the screen. The game's setting, in particular, will allow Roberts to create a cutting-edge visual experience with significantly fewer resources than most AAA games.
"I want them to get to the point where they feel they got their money's worth before the finished game is actually released. That's a big priority for me"
“You don't have to spend any of your processing time or GPU time on rendering the environment, because the environment is mostly empty - it's Space," he says. "There'll be a few nebulae up in the background, but that's nothing compared to what they have to do in, say, Crysis 3, where they're rendering New York with vegetation.
"Instead, we can focus an extreme amount of detail on specific objects, so the ship and the character flying it. They have such huge poly counts because I don't need to worry about rendering a whole city collapsing. Each blade of grass doesn't have a lot of polys, but there are thousands of them. I'm always a bit puzzled that someone hasn't tried something like this on the current generation [consoles], because you could do something pretty awesome looking. Battlefield 3 does a lot of work to have a destructible environment.”
The difficulty is in knowing where the cutting edge will be when Star Citizen is officially launched in 2014. Roberts has enough money to realise virtually every aspect of his original design document - "it's a little more complicated than doing an old-school graphic adventure" - but that amount was pledged on the basis of some truly impressive real-time, in-engine footage. Needless to say, leading PC hardware in two years time will be capable of much more, but Roberts is certain he can honour the strong first impression created by the trailer - and then some.
"I'm confident now that we'll be able to compete with any AAA game out there,” he says. “I can't do what I did with Freelancer, or what id did with Rage, and take five years to release it. At that point, the moment in time will be gone. But in two years, it will be pretty great.”